Why Two Black Democrats Were Expelled From Tennessee’s Legislature

The White Democrat who survived the expulsion vote thinks skin color had something to do with it.

The GOP-dominated Tennessee House of Representatives made an extraordinary move Thursday (April 6) to unseat two democratically elected African American lawmakers in what one of the ousted representatives described as a “power grab by silencing the two youngest Black representatives.”

Tennessee has become the latest epicenter in the nation’s partisan debate over gun control after a shooter armed with assault-style rifles fatally shot three 9-year-old children and three staff members at The Covenant School, a private Christian school, in Nashville on March 27.

On March 30, Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson, dubbed “the Tennessee Three,” led a "power to the people" chant from the House floor while scores of protesters gathered at the State Capitol to demand meaningful gun control legislation.

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House Republicans, who overwhelmingly disapprove of tightening gun control laws, said the trio’s behavior was a breach of protocol. With a supermajority in place, they easily voted Thursday to remove two of the three lawmakers: Jones in a 72-25 vote and Pearson in a vote of 69-26, CBS News reported.

Forced expulsions are rare in the Tennessee House, according to The Tennessean. Only eight lawmakers in the state’s history were removed from office, including six after the Civil War who refused to ratify the U.S. constitutional amendment to recognize former slaves as citizens, one in 1980 after a bribery conviction, and the other lawmaker in 2016 for alleged sexual harassment.

Johnson, a white 60-year-old retired teacher from Knoxville, survived her vote, 65-30. “It might have to do with the color of our skin,” she said, explaining why the attempt to oust her failed but passed in the case of her Black colleagues, according to CNN.

After the vote, Jones, 27, of Nashville said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

"A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing the two youngest Black representatives," he said

Pearson, a 28-year-old from Memphis, highlighted the double standard of his GOP opponents who wrap themselves in the American flag and celebrate the uprising by colonists against the British.

"This country was built on a protest. You who celebrate July 4, 1776, you say to protest is wrong," he said before the vote, adding that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated putting “consciousness above rule” during the civil rights movement.

U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, the Nevada Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, blamed racism.

“This is a direct assault on our democracy, on people’s duly elected representatives, and it smacks of overt racism that the two individuals that were ultimately expelled are two Black men who were simply speaking on behalf of their constituents,” Horsford told The Washington Post.

Horsford warned that the forces at play in Tennessee are not limited to The Volunteer State.

“It’s a tarnish on the Tennessee legislature. It’s a tarnish on the community that would allow something like this to happen,” Horsford told The Post. “But it’s also a wake-up call for all of America that we have serious issues around democracy and race in this country. And if you think that it’s going to end in Tennessee, sadly, it’s not.”

Unsurprisingly, Tennessee House Republicans have denied that racism was a factor in their decision to oust Jones and Pearson.

They accused the Tennessee Three of “knowingly and intentionally bringing disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives,” with some equating the protest for gun control with the Jan. 6 deadly attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., by pro-Trump supporters.

But the vote appears to be short-term political thinking by Republicans. As The Tennessean noted, removing Pearson and Jones gave the two young Black lawmakers a national platform and wide recognition. They could be reappointed to their elected seats within days or weeks.

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